On ‘You Disappear’ –
Interview by Marius Aronsen, April 2012, © Bokklubben.no
Translated by Misha Hoekstra.
How did you start writing You Disappear? Was your impetus the theme, or was it an idea for a story that demanded you immerse yourself in neurobiology?
I had more than a hundred different ideas on my computer, but I didn’t know which of them would make for the most riveting and thought-provoking novel. So I wrote on several of them at once, and when this story suddenly began to come alive in a way that the others didn’t, I decided to concentrate all my energy on it. One of the reasons I was so fascinated by it and couldn’t stop writing was that I thought I could present something new and different with respect to so many other novels. These years now are the very ones when neurology is transforming our conception of human nature. I thought that if I became one of the first to explore this new conception in a novel, then the manuscript I was writing might become innovative and thought-provoking in a different way than novels that don’t admit neurology into their universe.
Don’t you think that it’s a little scary that our personality can change so readily – that it can be completely out of our control?
I think it’s completely, unbelievably scary! So, among other things, it’s my own fear that I’m writing from. Sometimes I feel strongly that everything can vanish in the space of a single second. And it’s true! Everything really can disappear in a second – if you have a stroke, for example. And if you’re lucky as an author, this feeling of being in great danger can lend an extra intensity – and beauty as well – to the book you’re writing.
Isn’t the neurobiological view of people rather reductive? Or is it just that it’s such an unfamiliar perspective?
If you believe that everything in life can be explained by looking solely at the brain, then yes, the neurobiological view is terribly reductive. But very few people think that way; I’ve never met any myself. On the other hand, if you take knowledge of the brain’s functioning and add it to what we already know about being human, then it can be tremendously expansive and enriching. The opposite of reductive. You discover new connections, new explanations and questions. And an even greater complexity.
The newspaper Politiken has described you as an author in the mold of Georg Brandes, saying that your literary works are so vivid not only because of an impressive amount of effort, but also because you raise contemporary issues for debate. Is that a prerequisite for you as a writer?
I’d never start a novel just to raise some contemporary issue for debate. But I am interested in narratives that explore what it means to be human and how we, using the greatest available knowledge about ourselves, ought to live our lives. So in that sense I might very well be a Brandesian author, albeit not on purpose.
It’s also true that I work on my novels a great deal. It’s taken me five years of fulltime effort to write You Disappear. The trick of course is to get the book to still feel easy and fluid to the reader. The focus of my efforts has been, above all, to make my characters come to life. They need to leap off the page; you should believe in them. As part of this work I do a great deal of research. It isn’t to force knowledge on the reader; it’s so that I expose myself to the thoughts and experiences that the characters in the book are exposed to. It takes time for all that knowledge to settle into my unconscious, so that I’m changing my own personality during the course of the writing. The idea is for me to write about my own feelings when I’m describing the feelings of my characters. So that both the interior and the exterior world of the narrative seem utterly real.
What authors and books have inspired you? Are they novels or nonfiction?
I like reading rather demanding authors, such as Botho Strauss, Nathalie Sarraute, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Marcel Proust. But also to a great degree authors who manage to treat life’s great questions with a light, cheerful tone, like Douglas Coupland, Kurt Vonnegut, and George Saunders.
Of course, the challenge is even greater when you’re writing a novel about a brain-damaged protagonist; the book should have room for something uplifting. There should be place in what happens for humor and the grotesque.